To reform or to abolish? Christian perspectives on punishment, prison, and restorative justice.

AuthorBallot, Jordan J.

Efforts to modify or replace public systems of criminal justice in accord with the principles of restorative justice have long been understood to include a variety of practices, ranging from educational programs to victim-offender conferencing. What has only come to the forefront relatively recently is the pluriformity of perspectives on the values and principles that underlie various restorative justice practices. Thus, the dialogue and debates over what restorative justice is have expanded far beyond discussions of praxis. Generally speaking, restorative justice is a theory of justice that emphasizes concepts such as reconciliation, forgiveness, and healing. As we shall see, there is little unanimous agreement about how justice that is specifically restorative relates to other ideas of justice (most notably retributive justice). At its most basic level, however, restorative justice has focused as much on particular practices, such as victim-offender conferences, as on theoretical foundations for restoration. If restorative justice is to be seen in continuity with classical definitions of justice as related to dues and desert, then restoration, reconciliation, and healing should be seen as what human beings in the aftermath of crime are due. (1)

Some writers seem to assume particular principles and values are exclusively determinative of restorative justice. For instance, Kay Pranis writes, "Restorative justice appears remarkably successful as a philosophy and guiding vision. Restorative justice sets out a clear set of values to shape our actions." (2) Howard Zehr, a leading voice in the conversations about restorative justice, acknowledges, "Although the term 'restorative justice' encompasses a variety of programs and practices, at its core it is a set of principles, a philosophy, an alternate set of guiding questions. Ultimately, restorative justice provides an alternative framework for thinking about wrongdoing." (3) Other commentators have explored the diversity of opinions about the nature of restorative justice. (4) Gerry Johnstone notes that a more intentional examination of the differences in perspectives regarding restorative justice is necessary:

It is important to look at these "internal tensions" in order to offset the tendency to regard the campaign for restorative justice as a completely unified one. To understand and assess the campaign for restorative justice it is crucial to realise that it is characterised by diversity, difference and some disagreement. (5) Through the influence of figures like Howard Zehr and others, the religious and specifically Christian motivations behind restorative justice movements are undeniable. (6)

In this Essay, I will attempt to fill in a gap in preceding studies of restorative justice by paying special attention to the religious, most specifically to the Christian, perspectives on restorative justice. I will show that it is more accurate to speak of a plurality of restorative justice movements than of a unified and univocal restorative justice movement, particularly with respect to the variety of Christian approaches. (7) In delineating the various Christian perspectives on restorative justice, I will use as a primary litmus test the various figures' attitudes toward government coercion and punishment, most particularly with regard to incarceration, detention, and imprisonment. Attitudes toward prison provide an excellent way to map out the restorative justice landscape. Other types of punishment, such as the death penalty, are less helpful in getting at the crux of the disagreements and distinctive elements of each position, simply because there is so much agreement about the non-restorative nature of such sanctions. An expression representative of the general consensus is given by Howard Zehr: "'Restorative' has become such a popular term that many acts and efforts are being labeled 'restorative,' but in fact they are not. Some of these might be rescued. Others cannot. The death penalty, which causes additional and irreparable harm, is one of the latter." (8) Imprisonment can be seen both as the most serious regular form of non-capital punishment and as the factor that undergirds the efficacy of the entire criminal justice system, and therefore makes a most useful point of reference.

In using coercion as a delimiting factor, my analysis mirrors in a general way the approach used by numerous others to describe Christian engagement with society in general. (9) Paying attention to coercion also has the added benefit of relativizing the widespread terminological disagreements over the definitions of words like punishment and sanction. (10) Moreover, given the parameters of the discussion introduced by Howard Zehr's influential study, it is highly plausible that the basis of the disagreements among proponents of restorative justice is over issues of punishment. (11)

In Part I of this Essay, I delineate and describe the four basic positions I have found to be representative of Christian restorative justice advocates. These four positions form a divide over whether restorative justice includes or is reconcilable with elements of coercion, punishment, and sanction administered by government authority. In Part II, I explore and analyze the theological implications and interrelationships between the various positions with regard to the following topics, from more specific to most general: pain and punishment, jurisprudence and forgiveness, church and state, sin and crime, and love and justice. I conclude that those advocates of restorative justice described as complementarian reformists occupy the position most closely in alignment with the historically dominant Christian tradition. Part III of the study includes some comments and observations about the prospects for rapprochement among the various restorative justice positions, both with regard to questions of principle and value as well as practice and public policy.


    This survey of various views of restorative justice outlines four basic positions. The first major group, whom I call reformists, affirms the compatibility of government sanction while the second major group, whom I call radicalists, denies the compatibility of restorative justice ideals with punishment. The use of such terminology is an attempt to recognize the truth of the suggestion made by Johnstone and Van Ness that "it would be useful to adopt names for the different conceptions to avoid disputes that arise because of misunderstanding and to increase collaboration." (12) My terms differ from those I have encountered in various literature both because of my specific attention to Christian restorative justice perspectives and because I believe my categorization uses different criteria than previous efforts. With regard to the use of the term "radicalist," however, which could carry a pejorative connotation, I have decided to use this term because it is one that is expressly used by such writers to describe their own position. (13) By using this and other terms, I do not intend to prejudice the reader about the validity or viability of any of these positions.

    Each of the two major groups is then sub-divided into two smaller groups. Of those who affirm the state's coercive role in pursuing restorative justice, I distinguish between those who do so because they believe that punishment is a legitimate purpose for criminal justice, and those who see punishment as having a purely instrumental role. The former I term complementarian reformists, (14) while the latter I term instrumentalist reformists. (15) Of those who deny the validity of a coercive state role, I divide them according to whether they advocate the founding of separate and alternative institutions of restorative justice (separatist radicalists) (16) or whether they actively advocate the abolition of the criminal justice system in general and prisons in particular (abolitionist radicalists). (17)

    1. Complementarian Reformists

      Figures such as Charles W. Colson argue for reform of the criminal justice system toward a restorative paradigm. But this restorative paradigm is not one that eliminates punitive measures. Colson writes that "criminal justice requires a just means to restore the domestic order as well as a punishment system that is redemptive." (18) The primary rationale assumed for the administration of punishment is that it is a requisite aspect of treating criminal offenders as responsible moral agents. In this sense, punishment is deserved, and so the concept of desert plays an important role in the complementarian reformist view of restorative justice. Just as the "wages of sin is death," (19) criminal acts earn or warrant punishment. Thus writes Finnis: "Sanctions are punishment because they are required in reason to avoid injustice, to maintain a rational order of proportionate equality, or fairness, as between all members of the society." (20) Most typically from a Christian perspective, this view is based on recognition of the divine nature as both loving and just. Jonathan Burnside summarizes his survey of the biblical material thusly: "Throughout the Bible, the interdependence of retribution and restoration reflects the consistent character of a God who remains true to himself by punishing sin, but who also wishes offenders to repent and be reunited to his original good purposes." (21) L. Gregory Jones says that in his account of the restoration "an element of retribution" is present. He writes: "As there is responsibility in the offenses that have been committed, so punishment for the offenders requires that they accept such responsibility. In requiring this," he continues, "the community must determine what responsibility is involved and hence what punishment is appropriate. Such retribution is, at least in principle, separable from any feelings of hatred or desires for vengeance." (22)

      While the meting out of punishment by...

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